Many local women live in daily fear of domestic violence
MIDDLEBURY — “Rose,” an Addison County woman in her 40s, is overcome with dread every time she looks at the calendar.
While life is pretty good right now, each passing day brings her closer to the moment her ex-husband will be released from jail.
Closer to the prospect of being potentially shaken to the core in the dead of night by the terrifying sounds of a pounding fist and bellowing voice at her front door.
Closer to constantly looking over her shoulder for the man she’s been trying to escape from for around two years.
Closer to losing the freedom that she has finally won, only after he had lost his.
“Rose” — a false name used to protect her identity — is one of many local survivors of domestic and/or sexual violence who are either looking for ways to break free of abusive relationships, or who are trying to move on with their lives after turning a very painful page.
Rose’s story, and the sagas of all abuse victims, are especially poignant right now, as October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Local advocates are taking time this month to explain the frightening realities of domestic and sexual violence, along with a bit of good news: The U.S. Department of Justice has renewed a three-year, $746,132 grant that will preserve several key positions within the Addison County court system and at WomenSafe, positions that provide direct aid to victims of domestic/sexual violence.
“We’re thrilled,” WomenSafe Executive Director Kerri Duquette-Hoffman (pictured) said of the competitive grant, which WomenSafe has consistently secured since 2007. WomenSafe, an Addison County nonprofit, serves people across the gender spectrum who experience sexual, domestic and dating violence, as well as stalking. The organization does this through a 24-hour hotline, advocacy services, transitional housing, outreach and education, support groups, and supervised visitations and monitored exchanges.
The Rural Grant Program in question specifically targets efforts to prevent domestic abuse and sexual assault, and help victims of those crimes in rural settings. The grant will continue to finance, among other things, five full- and part-time positions, including Victim Advocate Jennifer Ricard and Addison County Deputy State’s Attorney Rebecca Otey, both part-time officials within the local court system.
The grant also partially pays for a local program aimed at reforming convicted batterers, a WomenSafe educator who teaches “healthy sexuality and healthy relationships” to Addison County school children, and the majority of the salary of a WomenSafe outreach advocate.
NO QUICK FIX
The diversity of these positions reflects the sometimes complex strategies required to help abuse victims, noted Duquette-Hoffman. Some victims are so emotionally scarred that they don’t know how to ask for help.
“There’s often not a quick fix, and I think the more we can be patient and present, the better off our community will be,” Duquette-Hoffman said. “We’re always available to listen and brainstorm, and we work hard to have resources that are useful and that help folks move forward.”
Statistics provided by Duquette-Hoffman and Otey show that domestic violence and sexual assault are persistent problems in Addison County.
Between July 1, 2017 and June 30, 2018, WomenSafe served 529 women, children and men during 5,769 in-person meetings and phone calls.
The nonprofit served 468 clients the previous fiscal year, according to Duquette-Hoffman.
“That’s a big jump,” she said.
Duquette-Hoffman ascribed some of the jump to the international “Me Too” movement that has seen many victims come forward with allegations of past domestic/sexual abuse.
“It has been triggering, people reaching out for support,” she said of the “Me Too” impact on WomenSafe. “Some of it is people realizing that what they experienced was sexual violence.”
Addison County State’s Attorney Dennis Wygmans agreed.
“Sunshine is the best disinfectant,” he said. “Whenever you start shining a light on the fact that these crimes affect people across all boundaries … The ‘Me Too’ movement has been amazing in that it’s exposing that people will use their power and control in order to get what they want.”
Addison County’s lack of affordable housing has been another “huge driver” in client inquiries at WomenSafe, which helps victims find lodging when they to flee an abusive relationship. The organization is now in the midst of a $1.2 million fund drive to bankroll, among other things, two transitional apartments for qualifying clients.
“It’s a key need,” Duquette-Hoffman said.
“Your ability (to flee a destructive relationship) is radically impacted by the availability of housing,” she added, noting most victims who strike out on their own are suddenly limited to one income.
“Often, people need assistance for the short-term or the long-term.”
WomenSafe officials said they wouldn’t be able to do what they do without a lot of help. Seventy-five community volunteers contributed 9,270 volunteer hours during the last fiscal year providing such services such as staffing the 24-hour hotline, in-person office support, court accompaniment, administrative support and board leadership.
Key partners in WomenSafe’s efforts have been Ricard and Otey, who do their best to see that victims’ best interests are represented in domestic/sexual violence court cases, and that those convicted of such crimes are both punished and put on the road to rehabilitation.
Otey has been very busy in court, to put it mildly.
As of this week, she’s currently prosecuting 16 cases that involve a combined total of 20 charges. Thirteen of those charges involve domestic assault, including both felonies and misdemeanors. The remaining seven charges involve related offenses, including violation of temporary restraining orders, stalking, aggravated stalking and interference with access to emergency services, and texting threatening messages.
Between January and October, Otey and her colleagues successfully prosecuted 34 domestic/sex assault cases comprised of 43 total charges. Twenty-four of those charges were for domestic assault, including misdemeanor and felony offenses. The other 19 charges were for related crimes.
More than half of all homicides of women in the state of Vermont are due to domestic violence, according to Ricard.
“That fact alone is alarming.” She said.
Most people living in, or visiting, Addison County get the impression of a beautiful, pastoral setting seemingly devoid of a dark side. But it’s there, according to Otey.
“One of our biggest concerns in Addison County is that people don’t really seem to believe it happens here, or don’t realize the wide variety of people it impacts,” Otey said. “Domestic violence isn’t just a poor person thing, or a minority person thing or an immigrant thing. It happens to everybody, and you can’t necessarily predict who it will happen to. And there’s no magical time in a relationship that says, ‘If you’ve gone this many years (without incident), it can’t happen to you.”
Ricard agrees. She’s worked with a lot of victims who have silently suffered in the shadows.
“The private nature of the crime lends itself to being something that not necessarily everyone would be aware of,” Ricard said. “Part of it is the rural nature of Addison County, and the isolation that the victim could be in.”
Wygmans — who previously served in Otey’s role — said he’s proud of his office’s tough approach to domestic violence and sex assault cases.
“I can tell you our response has been consistent,” said Wygmans, who’s running for re-election this November and against Middlebury’s Peter Bevere. “Addison County, since I was the domestic prosecutor, has always been at the top in terms of conviction rates. These are crimes we take very seriously. Our conviction rates are between 20 to 30 percent higher that the rest of the state and our acquittal rates are really low.
“We’ll pursue a case as long as we have enough (evidence) to take it to a jury,” he added.
Some offenders commit an act of domestic violence, serve out their punishment, and are never seen in court again. There are also repeat-offenders, some of them part of a family cycle of abuse and violence.
“When we look at the defendants… and look back in their past, it’s not surprising to sometimes see that they were either exposed to something similar to that, or some other type of behavior that would lead them to more likely to act in a way we don’t find consistent with appropriate relationships,” Otey said.
In some cases, the perpetrator was under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol. Mental health issues are at times a contributing factor. Each case has to be judged on its own terms in an effort to get justice for all involved, Otey noted.
“We have to look at all the things we look at when we sentence people — deterrence, making sure people know the law is important and we are going to hold people accountable when they break it,” Otey said. “We also need to provide people with resources so they know they don’t have to have this cycle continue in their lives.”
The county runs a 20-week, group counseling program for male offenders called “Domestic Violence to Responsible Choices.” Enrollment in the program, run by Melissa Deas, is mandated as part of a domestic violence offender’s sentence, Otey said. Attendees receive counseling, share stories and explore the potential underlying root causes of the crime(s) they have committed.
Meanwhile, the victims in these cases must pick up the pieces of their lives in the best way that they can.
‘DIDN’T TURN OUT WELL’
“Kim” (not her real name) and her partner got together in their late teens. It became a long-term relationship after Kim quickly got pregnant.
While there might have been some early warning signs, Kim was committed to making things work. She had come from a broken family and didn’t want the same destiny.
“I felt the obligation of wanting to have that family, so I fought and fought for that family,” Kim. “Obviously, it didn’t turn out very well.”
She said the violence began when she was around eight months pregnant, and got worse when her partner got into drugs. She did her best to hide the bruises and emotional pain she was experiencing.
Kim’s desire to maintain a complete family and her compassionate nature prompted her to give her partner multiple chances to mend his ways.
It always seemed to backfire.
“They’re so good at manipulating you that you feel bad in a sense; they make it out to be your fault, over and over again,” she said. “You begin to think, ‘Did I actually cause this?’”
Kim finally got the help she needed, and is now happy in a new relationship.
“It was definitely hard letting someone else in,” she said. “I had built up some walls.”
Her advice to other victims: “You deserve better. No man is ever worth the pain that you’re not supposed to be put in.
“I wish I had sought help and listened to people more than I did,” Kim added.
Rose is candid in her disillusionment with the court system, believing it didn’t do enough to protect her from a husband that she said was given too many second chances over the course of more than two decades.
“I’m dealing with the failure of our system,” she said of what she believes was a lenient court and multiple failed restraining orders.
“It’s frustrating,” Rose said.
She realizes some folks will ask why she didn’t extricate herself earlier from a dysfunctional relationship.
Easier said than done.
Alcohol, drugs and mental health issues in the relationship precluded cogent planning for a relationship exit, Rose noted.
“It was also not having the self-esteem I have now,” she said.
Rose is now employed, clean and sober and ready for the next chapter in her life.
A chapter she hopes will not have a bad ending when a cell door opens.
“I am very fearful,” she said.
John Flowers is at [email protected].